WWI’s Secret Shame: Shell Shock – BBC 2

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This was horrible; but it said a lot about attitudes towards ordinary soldiers during the Great War, and also about attitudes in general towards mental health issues in men. It went into some detail about the story of a young man from Bolton who, having been found wandering about in an obvious state of severe trauma, was court martialled and shot at dawn.  Stories like that – and it was very sensitively presented by Dan Snow – aren’t unfamiliar, but they’re none the less distressing for that.

Jimmy Smith joined the Army in 1910, in his late teens. He was with the Lancashire Fusiliers during the famous “6 VCs before breakfast” assault on Gallipoli in 1915.  To mark the centenary of it, in 2015, there was an exhibition at the Lancashire Fusiliers Museum in Bury: I went to see it.  Incredible bravery, but the extent of the fighting, the brutality of it, for 6 VCs to have been awarded for that one action, is almost beyond imagining.  And then, in 1916, he was at the Battle of the Somme.  He won a promotion, and good conduct awards: he was a brave soldier and a hero.  But then he was buried alive after a German artillery explosion.

He was rescued, and sent to a hospital back home in Bolton for treatment. As soon as he was deemed physically fit, he was ordered back to the front; but he wasn’t up to it.  He hid under the stairs at his family’s home and wouldn’t come out, but the Military Police came round and pretty much dragged him out.  Then he was transferred to the King’s Liverpool Regiment- the regiment with which my grandad enlisted during the Second World War – and sent to Ypres/Ieper.  He wasn’t well and he couldn’t cope, and he was disciplined for not obeying orders, and eventually he was found wandering about near the town of Poperinghe, a few miles away, court martialled, and sentenced to death.  They ordered his friends to shoot him.  The execution was botched, so that he was injured rather than killed: it seems likely that his friends did that on purpose, hoping he’d be taken to hospital.  No.  His best friend was forced to finish him off.

He was one of 306 men executed under similar circumstances. Pardons were issued in 2009, but that was hardly a lot of use to them, or to the grieving families and friends they left behind. shot at dawn?  I doubt it, somehow.

So what was going on? We know that mental health issues were not really understood at the time, and we also know that they were stigmatised.  People were shut away in asylums for years on end.  But shutting someone away in an asylum, however horrific, at least acknowledged that they were suffering from a medical condition, and that it was something that they couldn’t help and weren’t doing on purpose.  The attitude of the military authorities towards shell shock – and, yes, some people still hold this attitude today, with depression and anxiety related disorders – was that it was a weakness, and that was extrapolated to being a moral disorder, cowardice, a disgrace.

That talk of “good conduct awards” sounds like something out of a school story, and the whole attitude sounds, in some ways, like something out of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, which was bad enough in a school situation, being applied to the horror and slaughter and … whatever words you use to describe the fighting in the Great War aren’t bad enough.  And yet, earlier in the war, attitudes had actually been more sympathetic.

From what the programme said, the symptoms associated with shell shock hadn’t been seen before. That seems strange, because there must always have been battlefield trauma, but maybe it was the technological advances that made the fighting in the Great War different to what had gone before that created different symptoms.  Or maybe it just got more attention because of the sheer numbers involved – around 250,000 men.  Doctors genuinely didn’t know what was going on, and at first thought that there had to be some sort of physical cause.

Eventually, in January 1916, psychiatric units were set up close to the front line. The idea was more to patch ’em up and send ’em back as quickly as possible, but I think that attitude, harsh as it seems, was understandable given the desperation of the situation.  At least it was acknowledged that people needed help.  The programme then explained that work was being done at home to try to improve psychiatric treatment.  One doctor, at the Maudsley Hospital in London, was trying to develop forms of pastoral care.  Another doctor, according to Dan, was a bit of a charlatan, claiming that he could cure people in an hour, and showing “before and after” film footage which clearly wasn’t what it claimed to be.

The second doctor having a local-sounding name, I decided to see what Google could tell me about him. He was actually born in Bradford, but he attended VIth form at the boys’ school which is the “brother school” to my old school.  Oh dear.  That was a bit awkward.  However, further investigation found out that he was a very highly-respected doctor, the founder of the British Society of Gastroenterology, and that many of his former psychiatric patients wrote to thank him for his help.  So I think Dan was a bit hard on him, really!   Anyway, there were two main points to this part of the programme, one being that treatment offered varied widely, and the other being that at least it was being acknowledged that these men were not cowards, or “deficient” in any way: they were ill.

Then attitudes hardened. It seems to have been largely a reaction to the number of shell shock cases.  There’s a scene in Blackadder Goes Forth (this wasn’t mentioned in the programme, but everyone was really into Blackadder in my teens, and I remember this scene well) in which Blackadder tries to get out of being sent “over the top” by pretending to be “mad”.  It doesn’t seem very funny now, because the authorities took the view that that was what was going on.  They seem to have viewed men suffering from shell shock along the lines of naughty boys trying to skive out of PE lessons.  What did I say about Tom Brown’s Schooldays?  A cap was put on the number of people allowed treatment, and 3,000 men were court martialled – of whom, as already mentioned, 306 were executed.  An inquiry held after the war said that shell shock was a “disgrace”.  The term was actually banned, and little help was given to men struggling to cope once the war was over.

The current take on the Great War is that we should be trying to move away from the idea of lions led by donkeys. But … bloody hell.  And what makes it worse is that attitudes actually had been getting better.  And then they got worse again.  It’s understandable that the authorities wanted people back in action as soon as possible, but the attitude, the callousness, when doctors had said that these men were not cowards, that they were ill.

How do you make sense of it? Desperate times call for desperate measures?  No – that doesn’t make sense.  If soldiers have got something wrong with them, you’d try to sort it.  It was the failure to accept that something was wrong, the insistence that it was cowardice, moral failure.  Part of me wants to say that it was some sort of male public school attitude, but I’ve heard plenty of people who are neither male nor the product of public schools sneer that people suffering from depression and anxiety are just looking for attention and need to pull themselves together.  And, as bad as it is for women, it’s worse for men, because of this whole “macho” thing, especially in a military environment.  So I don’t really know what to say – apart from a big thank you to Dan Snow for his very sensitive discussion of a very distressing subject, and one which many people don’t find it easy to talk about.

The programme didn’t end with the Great War. It went on to discuss the resurfacing of shell shock during the Second World War.  At the start of the Second World War, talk of shell shock was banned, and, despite everything that had happened during the First World War, the advice given was to slap “hysterical” men across the face or throw cold water over them.  Thankfully, that changed, and the number of psychiatrists attached to the Army was increased from 6 (6!  For the entire British Army!) to 300.  It was after the D-Day Landings that huge numbers of shell shock cases were seen.

That happened to my grandad: he had shell shock after the D-Day Landings and the fighting that followed. Dan spoke to a surviving veteran about his experiences, and to the son of Len Murray (the Secretary General of the TUC during the Winter of Discontent and the early Thatcher years) about his father’s experiences.  In both cases, the men’s lives had been permanently affected by what had happened to them, and neither had received much help.  I know Grandad did receive treatment, so maybe it was the luck of the draw, and it depended on whether or not you got a sympathetic doctor.  Certainly there wasn’t enough support, though.

The programme then went on to say that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was only officially diagnosed/recognised after the Vietnam War, and only recognised by the British military after the Falklands War. Excuse my medical ignorance, but I’d kind of thought that PTSD was an official name for shell shock.  Apparently not.  The symptoms aren’t the same: PTSD sufferers have flashbacks, which First and Second World War veterans suffering from shell shock didn’t.  Sir Simon Wessely, who’s done a lot of work in relation to PTSD (and also Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), explained about it, and suggested that it might be a cultural thing connected to the frequent use of flashbacks in films about war.  I don’t pretend to understand how that would work, but it was certainly interesting to hear about.  Dan then spoke to a man who served in Afghanistan and, although the Army apparently knew that he was displaying symptoms of PTSD, was only officially diagnosed years later, by his GP.

It was pointed out that, whilst there’ve been improvements in psychiatric treatment for serving troops, the availability of treatment for those who are no longer in the Army is actually being reduced, to save money.  And, even when treatment’s given, it’s only really palliative.  A century after the Great War ended, we still don’t really know how to treat this.

None of this was easy to watch. Jimmy Smith’s story nearly had me in tears.  It had Dan Snow visibly distressed.  “The guy was a hero,” he said.  Yes.  He was.  And he was executed by his own side.  The programme was well-named.  “Shame” is the right word.

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2 thoughts on “WWI’s Secret Shame: Shell Shock – BBC 2

  1. Chris Deeley

    Being in a firing squad was a ghastly experience. In his memoirs Sir Malcolm Sargent refers to his role in a firing squad as the worst experience of his life.

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